Many of the customs that we commonly associate with Christmas come from previous pagan or pre-Christian European backgrounds.



  • The word Yule comes from an Old Norse word for a twelve-day celebration starting on or around December 21 among Germanic people. It later became known as Christmastide.
  • Mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The plant had no roots, yet remained green. The Norse associated it with their goddess of love Frigga, perhaps the origin of kissing under it, as we’ll discuss in a later article.
  • The wassail bowl was first known in Scandinavia as the Old Norse ves heil. We are familiar with it by the more modern Anglo-Saxon “toast” wassail which means “be thou hale” or healthy and is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night.
  • Holly was used for decoration in the twelve-day Roman holiday known as the Saturnalia, which was followed by twelve holy days ending on January 1, and is where we get the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”


As mentioned previously, the Roman celebration of Saturnalia to honor the head of the pantheon, occurred annually at the end of December. To what extent Saturnalia traditions influenced Christmas or the reverse, is debated by scholars. While we hear of Saturnalia from Catullus in the 1st century B.C., the full descriptions of its traditions we learn from Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, who lived in the early fifth century A.D., long after Christmas had been widely observed.


Chi Rho Contrary to popular belief, the “X” in Xmas is not an abbreviation for “cross.” Nor, as my mother believed, is it disrespectful, taking the Christ out of Christmas. Quite the contrary, it represents the Greek letter chi — which looks like our letter “X” — and is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ: Χριστός (Christos) which like the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (Messiah) means “the anointed one.” You may be familiar with “XP” the chi-rho, the first two letters of Christos, as an abbreviation for Christ.

So Xmas really is shorthand for Christmas.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro is a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Shelley Kersey on December 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Great explanations. Glad to see someone else point out the X in the Christmas abbreviation. I ran into this argument last year. I also had a friend be offended once from a Christmas card I gave in middle school because she believed I was taking out Christ. I would love to see an article on Saturnalia. Perhaps you have one so I will search your site. I just found your site and I’m really impressed with the detail and more historical accounts of where things originate. It’s refreshing. 🙂

  2. Florist in Hyderabad on December 24, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for the history of Christmas!

  3. Florist in Hyderabad on December 24, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for the history of Christmas!

  4. Linda on January 22, 2018 at 2:38 am

    Very interesting article on the history of the “X” in Xmas!!!

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